Districts do little to ensure school safety after tornado report reveals problems

- A FOX 4 Investigation has identified 65 schools in North Texas built by Ratcliff Constructors, the construction company accused by Red Oak ISD of improperly fastening walls at Shields Elementary School, which was badly damaged in a December 2015 tornado.

Out of 14 districts in North Texas that have hired Ratcliff Constructors to build or renovate their schools, only three, so far, are re-inspecting their schools.

FOX 4’s Lori Brown began investigating after a wall toppled over at the school in Glenn Heights in northern Ellis County on December 26, 2015. The collapse exposed classrooms where dozens of children would have been had it not been the day after Christmas.

The National Weather Service reported an EF-3 tornado hit the area, but engineers say the damage did not have to happen.

Structural engineering expert Tim Marshall was contracted by the National Weather Service to survey the scene shortly after the tornado. He raised concerns about the school’s construction.

“When you get there and see the walls have fallen like a house of cards, I’m aghast by it,” Marshall told FOX 4 on January 4.

After hearing Marshall’s concerns, Red Oak ISD hired a third-party engineer to examine the school’s construction.

The district’s January 28th report based on the firm’s findings detailed problem after problem with Ratcliff’s construction. The report included photos and examples of “missing screws”, “improper clip installation” and “fasteners not having enough penetration” through the concrete.

FULL REPORT: Red Oak ISD Report on Tornado Damage at Shields Elementary (January 28, 2016)

On March 24, a spokesperson for Ratcliff Constructors said in a statement, “[Shields Elementary] was never designed to withstand the winds from a tornado…” and"…damage to the building, including the walls in question, is consistent with the force of the winds and flying debris."

Ratcliff Constructors did not agree to talk on camera for this story, but Red Oak ISD said the company has verbally agreed to pay for wall damage repairs at Shields Elementary.

The district has hired a different builder to complete the repairs, but says Ratcliff will foot the bill for damage related to wall construction. The agreement is expected to be finalized and presented to the school board next month.

At a March 28th school board meeting, Red Oak ISD Superintendent Dr. Scott Niven told FOX 4 he has spoken with the Max Young, the president of Ratcliff Constructors.

“[Young] is very unhappy that is how it turned out,” said Dr. Niven. “He wants to make it right wants to do whatever it takes to make the district whole again.”

PHOTOS: Red Oak ISD March 28th report on progress of tornado repairs at Shields Elementary

FOX 4’s investigation identified 65 schools built or renovated by Ratcliff Constructors in North Texas, spanning 14 districts and charter school systems, affecting more than 43,000 students.

You can click on each red flag on the map for more information on each campus.

You can also find a full list of schools built or renovated by Ratcliff Constructors and each school district’s statement here.

Frisco ISD has a dozen Ratcliff schools, but has decided not to re-inspect its schools.

“I think they should go out and re-inspect to make sure things are safe for the children," said Kim Dejarnette, a Frisco mother. “That's what we're spending our tax dollars on: to make sure our schools are safe.”

All of Frisco ISD’s school board members denied our interview requests. A spokesperson said in an email, the district has third-party oversight at all times during construction.

There was also oversight at Shields Elementary. An inspector contracted by the City of Glenn Heights signed off on the project. The inspector referred FOX 4 to their attorney, who has not returned any calls.

Ratcliff Constructors is working on seven new schools in North Texas right now, and several districts are considering them for even more schools.

“[Districts] should discontinue using that builder if they're not going to make a proactive stance and check what they've done," said Alex Balboa, a parent with a student currently enrolled at an elementary school built by Ratcliff Constructors.

Dallas ISD has 16 schools built or renovated by Ratcliff. The district said they have not had any issues with the company.

In a January 3rd e-mail obtained by FOX 4, DISD Chief of Operations Wanda Paul assured the Superintendent and School Board Trustee Bernadette Nutall: "We will definitely investigate any issues that may involve faulty construction with this company."

One day after Paul’s e-mail, Construction Services Director Ed Lavine wrote in an e-mail copied to Paul, "I think it would be appropriate to wait until Red Oak ISD confirms whether there were actually any faulty construction issues before we proceed with any additional efforts."
    
More than two months after those e-mails, FOX 4’s Lori Brown asked Paul what the district has done since Red Oak ISD released its report on January 28.

“What we look at is, ‘Have any problems presented themselves to us?’ Basically to this date, we haven't had any,” said Paul.

Paul also said Ratcliff Constructors could still be awarded future projects.

Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD, Mansfield ISD and Harmony Public Schools are the only three districts that have started inspecting their buildings in response to Red Oak ISD’s report.

Dallas ISD has not, and neither have nine other districts.

You can find a full list of schools built or renovated by Ratcliff Constructors and each school district’s statement here.

FOX 4 asked Paul to explain why Dallas ISD has decided not to inspect.

“If you look at this wall, how do you re-inspect the wall,” Paul said. “If there are indications of cracks, that's something that would present itself.”

As documented in Red Oak ISD’s January 28th report, the third-party engineer hired by the district physically cut into other walls at tornado-damaged Shields Elementary and discovered the same construction deviations found in the collapsed wall.

FOX 4 asked Dallas ISD what it would take to conduct a similar inspection.

“You’d have to demolish it,” Paul said.

Ratcliff Constructors is currently building Jose “Joe” May Elementary School in Dallas ISD Trustee Miguel Solis’ district.

“If we're not doing what we can do in an expeditious manner to ensure the community feels safe and secure, then I don't think we're doing enough," said Solis. “I want to make sure that school is being built to the highest possible standard."

Solis requested for this issue to be discussed at the April 4 Dallas ISD school board meeting.

North Texas parents say they are counting on districts to get it right.

“You hope where you leave them they're being protected,” said Frisco parent Hannah Matthews.

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A Statement from Ratcliff Constructors LP
March 24, 2016

According to the National Weather Service, an EF-3 tornado hit the Midlothian-Ovilla-Glenn Heights area on December 26th with winds between 135-165 miles per hour. According to media reports, several hundred homes or businesses were destroyed by the tornado. The D.T. Shield Elementary School was heavily damaged, the majority of the building is standing and will be repaired.  Damage to the building, including the walls in question, is consistent with the force of the winds and flying debris including one ton air conditioning units that were ripped off the roof of the building.

FOX 4 Question: Will Ratcliff do anything differently in the future?

Our company will continue to work proactively with our clients, architects, subcontractors and others to make sure we are implementing best practices and continuous improvement. As the school district has noted there was no problem with the walls since the school opened in 2009 and was never designed to withstand the winds from a tornado. We will work with any school district or customer who has a question or concern.

FOX 4 Question: How can parents be assured other schools across North Texas were not built the same way?

Ratcliff has successfully completed well over 50 public school projects over the past two decades all of which were subject to independent third party inspections at every stage of construction.  Over the same period of time, our company has not experienced any structural defect claims.

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Red Oak ISD Ratcliff Review DTS Ovilla Construction Update 1-28-16

 

 

Red Oak ISD School Board Update on Shields Elementary (March 28, 2016)

 

You can reach the FOX 4 investigative team by e-mailing iteam@foxtv.com. 

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